Pete’s Dragon (1977)

This morning, we sat down to watch another very long Disney film with our son. Like Bedknobs and Broomsticks, this is a movie that has been recut and edited several times in multiple releases. We watched the current cut, which is pretty long at 129 minutes. There are longer and shorter versions in circulation as well. It really did test Daniel a little bit, but he was very brave. I was afraid, given his history, that the scene where the villagers and fishermen of Passamaquoddy try to capture the dragon, whose name is Elliot, would frighten him, but he did just fine.

Pete’s Dragon is a collaboration between live-action director Don Chaffey, who was behind all sorts of interesting stuff, from Jason and the Argonauts to some late-in-the-run episodes of The Avengers, and Don Bluth, who had just finished work on Disney’s fantastic The Rescuers. That’s actually one of my favorite Disney films of all time, by the way, and we’ll definitely watch it for the blog some time in the future. The main human stars of the film are Helen Reddy, Mickey Rooney, and newcomer Sean Marshall, and they’re opposed by the villains played by Carry On star Jim Dale and Red Buttons. Jim Backus and Shelley Winters also appear in smaller roles.

But the real star of the movie is Elliot, who is just terrific. I’m aware of the remake that will be released later this summer, and as much as I pretend to judge films on their own merits, that movie will sink or swim based on how well they do all the tics and grumblings and oddball little grunts that Charlie Callas gave the original Elliot. All things being equal, it’s actually a pretty strange little vocal performance, but I just adore it.

Daniel was completely charmed by the movie, as hoped. He loved all the slapstick comedy and Elliot’s funny facial gestures, and most of the songs – good gravy, there are a lot of ’em – and while he’s been on better behavior and still wanted to roll around on the sofa a lot, he did mostly very well. His favorite part was when Shelley Winters and her hillbilly gang get dumped in tar. “I love it when people get covered in tar!” he tells us.

I was surprised to learn that this film isn’t better remembered. Its Rotten Tomatoes score is a lowly 48% at present, which is a real stunner. Many writers agree that it runs too long, but here’s the thing: I think it’s at least a song and a half too long, but nobody’s going to concur what should be cut. I’d be tempted to edit away the hillbillies’ first number, but watch with a kid and see how well that plays with the child. The very first shot of the movie is Pete somehow floating into a wooded clearing, instantly establishing the magical premise, and that first musical number starts inside of two minutes. I don’t know whether Don Chaffey was actually given a document entitled “How to Immediately Hook a Five Year-Old,” but it sure feels like it.

I’d also cut “Candle on the Water,” regardless of it being nominated for an Academy Award. Like “Cheer Up Charlie” in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, it stops the movie dead in its tracks. It’s a nice little song, I suppose – it wouldn’t be out of place between Steely Dan and Michael McDonald on the soft rock radio in your doctor’s waiting room – but quite fast-forwardable in a picture this long.

So while it’s certainly flawed, it’s nevertheless a very good film. Jim Dale is a really entertaining villain, and Helen Reddy is a great emotional anchor. Sean Marshall isn’t great, but the list of most aggravating kid stars has many dozens of names before you reach him, and Elliot, all pudge and funny expression and tic-tic-tic burbles, would have been watchable and impossibly charming regardless of who was in it.

And no, those weren’t tears streaming down my face when Elliot tells Pete goodbye. You stop that slander right now, you hear?

Herbie Rides Again (1974)

To be absolutely clear, Herbie Rides Again is not one-tenth the film that The Love Bug is. But tell that to our son, who enjoyed it more. He laughed all the way through it, loving all the slapstick, but he especially loved “the army of punch buggies.”

He had such a ball that it would be churlish to complain much, but it really does feel like a series of badly strung together set pieces without any logic connecting them. Still, the set pieces are mostly entertaining, thanks, again, to Disney’s fantastic casting.

Helen Hayes, an actress we’ll probably see a few more times as we show Daniel more of the Disney catalog, leads the cast as the aunt of Buddy Hackett’s character of Tennessee from the earlier film. Stefanie Powers (who, coincidentally, was in an episode of Harry O that I watched this week and was made the same year as this) and Ken Berry take the young heroic parts with a romantic meet-cute. Keenan Wynn is the villain, and supporting parts are played by recognizable faces Chuck McCann, Vito Scotti, and John McIntire. Wynn does the same over-the-top authoritarian loudmouth thing he always did – in fact, Wikipedia tells me that this is the exact same character that he played in two earlier Disney films – but it’s reliably entertaining to watch.

I did laugh out loud once – a window washer gives quite specific instructions to Keenan Wynn’s office – but this movie just didn’t have the ability to charm adults that its predecessor had, even relying quite early on a lengthy flashback from that movie just to give us more Herbie action. Herbie’s world of living technology grows quite a bit in this film, and there’s more than enough slapstick, and scenes of Herbie driving where cars are not supposed to be, to keep the kids happy, which is what matters. It’s by some distance a weaker film than Bedknobs and Broomsticks, but it’s much, much more likely that Daniel will want to watch this again.

The Love Bug (1968)

This morning, we sat down to watch The Love Bug and had a complete ball. The only problem with this movie, to hear Daniel tell it, is that somehow there’s not enough racing and weird magic Volkswagen business. This is the sort of very silly complaint that only a five year-old can make. If there’s a legitimate complaint at all to be leveled at the first film in the famous and successful Herbie franchise, it’s that it’s got some very dated hippie business, and some very, very dated “inscrutable Chinese” business. Otherwise, it’s a very funny and very solid little film.

One thing I really enjoy about revisiting older Disney films is how downright brilliantly they’re cast. As the heroes: Dean Jones, Buddy Hackett, and Michele Lee. They are fantastic; they make every click and clack of the plot appear completely effortless. As the villain: David Tomlinson, whom we enjoyed a couple of months ago in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, here playing a snob luxury auto salesman, who has a sideline racing a downright beautiful 1962 Apollo.

But the real stars of the film are Herbie, and all the unbelievably talented drivers. Awesomely, they get their own screen of credits at the beginning of the movie. Some of the perfectly-timed zips, zigs, and zags in between each other’s cars had me wincing. Much of the close-ups are rear-screen projection of course, but all of the live stunts and what we now call practical effects are still amazing. The climax of the film involves Herbie coming in first and third place in the big race. Just imagine how that looked; providing a visual would spoil a remarkable gag and a great special effect sequence.

Backing up these leads is another really impressive bunch of supporting players. Joe E. Ross is here, playing a police detective, and he doesn’t say “Ooh! Ooh!” Gary Owens is here, playing a radio announcer, because that’s just perfect. There’s even a guy who’s the racing association president, greeting all the drivers to the big race. “Spot the non-actor,” I said to Marie. Turns out he was Andy Granatelli, the former CEO of the motor oil company STP. You get the feeling the movie’s got a lot more Easter eggs than just that for gearheads and racing fans.

In the days before home video, it was common to see paperback novelizations of films and TV series. I tracked down a copy of this one years ago because of a legendary bit of writing. The book is one of dozens by a guy with the remarkable name of Mel Cebulash, and, rather than actually coming up with a description of what Buddy Hackett’s character should look like, he wrote the following:

Instead of going into the firehouse, Jim walked around to the courtyard. There he found Tennessee, welding another piece of metal onto a growing pile of junk. Tennessee, who looked and talked like Buddy Hackett, regarded his sculptured pile of parts from wrecked autos as a work of art.

It’s actually kind of aggravating to have this really good movie that so many people worked incredibly hard to make – seriously, the cinematography is just downright beautiful throughout, with gorgeous location filming around San Francisco, and simply looks far better than a silly kids’ film needs to look – and when it came time to merchandise the movie through Scholastic Book Services, somebody just hacked that out, but you know, that really is kind of funny.

Daniel’s favorite part of the movie, or so he claims, was the final slapstick gag, in which Thorndyke and his former lead henchman, demoted by his business’s new owner to a simple mechanic, spray each other with motor oil. I don’t believe that. I told him that Disney made four of these movies and asked whether he’d like to watch another in a couple of weeks. He said yes, of course.

The Cat From Outer Space (1978)

Even expecting a high degree of silliness from a live-action Disney film, this one’s really silly. I’m not even talking about the premise, in which a highly-evolved cat from a hyper-intelligent civilization who goes by the name of Zunar-J-5-Slash-9-Doric-4-7 – or just “Jake” – gets stuck on Earth for a few days. He asks an unorthodox scientist played by Ken Berry, in possibly predictable casting for a role like this in a ’70s Disney film, to help him repair his ship. Circumstances require Berry’s character to get a little help from some fellow scientists and neighbors, played by Sandy Duncan and McLean Stevenson.

No, what’s really silly and not just a little painful to suffer through is the very broad and very stupid depiction of the bumbling and ridiculous military, as led by Harry Morgan’s General Stilton (“The Big Cheese”). Making the most of his four month break between seasons on M*A*S*H, Morgan takes the sympathetic officer character that he had there and just turns off his brains, playing Stilton without any nuance at all. He’s just a dumb, shouting loudmouth who is worried about “Rooskies” and is surrounded by dingbat subordinates. When the military threat to Jake is resolved by a fairly convenient phone call with the president, it doesn’t just end the plot problem of the military, it made us breathe a sigh of relief because thank heaven that was over with.

It was a bit cute, however, to cast Stevenson and Morgan in the same film. Morgan, of course, replaced Stevenson as the base colonel on M*A*S*H three years previously.

Daniel was actively bothered by the military’s role in the film, and the more the army learned of the cat, his human help, and the cat’s super-technology, the more aggravated he became. It was kind of a weird experience, since typically with films – well, we haven’t watched all that many together so far – he gets a little restless waiting for unusual things to get started. Here, we see Jake using his psychic powers to open doors and manipulate objects very early on, which had him captivated and very amused. Jake is mischievous and not above demonstrating his powers with some slapstick bufoonery. He’s also very much a ladies’ cat and very interested in getting to know the cute white cat that lives with Sandy Duncan.

Duncan gets to shine a little during a scene in a pool hall where the heroes make some wagers to finance the purchase of some gold that Jake needs for his spaceship repairs. It’s a funny scene, but I was disappointed in the huge missed opportunity. The whole movie’s full of great name actors making a few dollars for a couple of days’ filming, including Hans Conreid, Sorrell Booke, and Alan Young, and the pool hall scene is brilliantly cast, with some recognizable faces like Ralph Manza leading a crowd of extras that look so completely perfect, a bunch of sweaty men in horrible clothes looking absolutely like who you’d expect to find in a 1978 pool hall, a bunch of hustlers eager to chomp down on marks like our heroes. But for some weird reason, the director, Norman Tokar, didn’t hire anybody who could actually do any wild trick shots, which would have made the scene much more hilarious. Even when Sarasota Slim sinks everything, it happens offscreen, and all that we do see on the tables is done with special effects.

Interestingly, there’s a secondary threat in this film. Roddy McDowall plays some sort of spy, and while it is implied that his bosses are those “Rooskies” that General Morgan fears, it turns out that he’s in the employ of a guy who’s essentially a James Bond villain called Olympus! But Olympus is only there to move the story into the air for a really good special effects sequence between Olympus’s helicopter and a crumbling, cobwebby biplane that Jake is flying. It’s a very entertaining scene with some great stunt work and flying.

In the end, we were a little disappointed with Daniel’s reaction to the movie. It’s a ’70s Disney film, so the threats are pretty tame and our heroes are never in any real danger, but he responded to every possible problem as though the world would end, when of course each problem is really the launching pad for some slapstick or special effects to get our heroes out of the jam. He’s hit another extra-talkative, extra-questioning phase, and we had to pause the movie twice to explain the small details. We might watch another live-action Disney in a few weeks’ time, and I’m pretty sure that one doesn’t have any mean army men in it to get him so worried. Stay tuned!

(Meanwhile, all this has reminded me that there’s a pool hall in Cordele GA that’s said to sell some really good chili dogs. Maybe one day…)

Freaky Friday (1976)

Wow, is this movie ever dated! Smoking moms, electric typewriter class, male chauvinist pigs… was this really made forty years ago, or four hundred and forty? It’s really entertaining, but is it ever a time capsule, and not just in society’s attitudes toward women, but back to those days when men’s careers in TV and movie entertainment were forever on the brink of disaster for fear of blustery, easily-displeased clients and bosses. You recall how every single episode of Bewitched featured Derwin – I mean, Darrin – perpetually skating between a successful sale and Larry Tate spontaneously combusting? The dad in this movie, played by John Astin, is similarly between the Scylla and Charybdis.

And with that world of crazy white-collar suburbia comes the life where Dad needs a new freshly-pressed suit for three important gigs a day and Mom is scrambling between catering for two dozen at no notice, pressing silk shirts (with Jon Pertwee-frilled fronts), and seeing that the drapes and curtains are regularly cleaned by professionals. The oil change and detailing place does to-your-garage delivery for $14.50 (about $63 in today’s currency, but this was California, after all), but at least you don’t have to drive your thirteen year-old daughter to the orthodontist, because she goes there herself on the city bus.

And looking back, yes, I do kind of recall the 1970s being kind of like that for my parents. Mom’s days included constant trips to the dry cleaners because men wore three-piece suits in every profession the other side of soda jerk, and I swear we must have had an expense account at the package store for all the evening entertaining they did. So yeah, once she got done ironing blouses and shirts, and having conferences at the school, she’d enjoy a quick break with Days of Our Lives before heading to the cleaners and the salon and probably the package store before taking my brother and me to the pediatrician or the dentist or the barber shop, and really only somebody as naive as a thirteen year-old could possibly want to swap places with a “stay-at-home mom” in the 1970s.

As a teenaged actress, Jodie Foster was omnipresent in the 1970s. This was the first of two Disney live-action films that she made, and far better-remembered than Candleshoe, which is also really entertaining. Astonishingly, she made Freaky Friday the same year that she made Taxi Driver, which I expect the PR people at Buena Vista did not mention. She’s fun as Annabel, but she doesn’t seem to be having half the fun that Barbara Harris, who plays her mother Ellen, does. Harris gets to chew gum and skateboard and dance and own the neighborhood baseball diamond and throw boomerangs while making goo-goo eyes at teenaged neighbors.

The water skiing stuff is all stunt doubles and rear-screen projection, of course, but the fun comedy of errors, which mainly involves lots of slow-burns in the classroom as Mom-in-Jodie Foster’s-body has no idea how to fit in, slowly gives way to more slapstick and a car chase happening at the same time as the water skiing tomfoolery.

Daniel was kind of restless during the movie, but did he ever come alive at the climax. It’s really entertaining, with Harris’s stunt double creating all kinds of skiing chaos while Foster leads police on a wild chase across Los Angeles landmarks. I’m almost positive they take the family’s red VW bug down the same staircase that David Janssen’s stunt double went down on a motorcycle in the Harry O pilot a couple of years earlier. Then they invariably end up in the concrete-channeled Los Angeles River, where they successfully avoid running into any model shoots or giant ants and the funniest thing that Daniel has ever seen happens: one of the police cars gets squashed triangular by one of the tunnels.

Almost immediately, this gag became the second-funniest thing he’d ever seen, because the final remaining police car gets cleaved in half when it runs into a concrete fork in the river, the driver’s side running up the left channel, and the passenger side running up the right. I have never heard this kid laugh so hard. When he’s old enough for me to let him hear Jackie Gleason swearing for a hundred minutes, he is going to die laughing over Smokey & the Bandit.

Perhaps it’s a bit wrong for Foster, Harris, and Astin – never mind a pretty deep bench of recognizable supporting players including Ruth Buzzi, Sorrell Booke, Marc McClure, Dick Van Patten, Alan Oppenheimer, and Al Molinaro – to get totally upstaged by stunt drivers and gimmick cars, but he is only four, dear readers!

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)

This was the first time that we sat down to watch a film together that didn’t have the safe introduction of a familiar TV series! Daniel did mostly well, but we had to take a short intermission break because this movie was a lot longer than I expected. It’s not fair to say that I was familiar with a shorter version of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, but the one time that I saw it, back around 1979-1980, it sure was shorter than this.

B & B was originally released in 1971 and was made by many of the crew and team who’d worked on Mary Poppins. This was, it turned out, a backup plan had Disney not been able to acquire the rights to Poppins. As dramatized with some considerable liberty in 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks, that was a real possibility.

B & B is a pretty fun movie about Miss Price, an “apprentice witch” who has been burdened with three orphans who’ve been evacuated from London during the Blitz. Simultaneously, her witchcraft correspondence course has been closed down. Searching for answers turns up her professor, who has actually been running a mail-order scam, having no idea that his spells actually work. Now that they realize that, in the right hands, the magic will work, they set off to find the missing half of the old book from which he’d been pilfering the incantations.

In its present form, the movie is badly bloated. I didn’t spot the problem until we realized that some of the film footage within the agonizing ten-minute (!!) “Portobello Road” musical number is of markedly inferior quality to the rest of the movie. Apparently the original cut of the film for the 1971 release is 117 minutes, the one that was reissued in 1979 was 96 minutes, and this is 139 minutes, which is way too long. They tried to restore everything, including cut scenes that no longer had an existing soundtrack and had to be redubbed entirely. (Another scene, which had a soundtrack but no film footage, is included as a reconstruction as a bonus feature.) To the Disney team’s, and the voice actors’, considerable credit, the only two times that I noticed that a scene was redubbed was when the fellow with David Tomlinson’s part read his lines. The imitation was good, but not quite right.

So the first half of the film is far too bloated and slow for a four year-old to embrace it, and so we took a break midway through the scene where Sam Jaffe and Bruce Forsyth, playing a shady book dealer and his criminal associate, briefly antagonize our heroes, but also give them a clue that the magic words that they need can be found on a fantasy island. The first half has some cute magical moments, but they were not paced well enough to hold his attention, and the long “Portobello Road” number destroyed what was left.

The animated section of the film livened things considerably after our break. It’s centered around a bad-tempered lion king engaging David Tomlinson as the referee for a soccer match. Nobody wants to referee his matches; they all get trampled underneath elephants and hippos and rhinos passing the ball around. Anybody who ever wondered why this movie, and Mary Poppins, have animated portions never watched them with four year-olds. He loved it, roared with laughter, and his interest was reignited at precisely the right time.

Anyway, Angela Lansbury is incredibly fun as Miss Price. I’m so used to her playing supremely confident and assured characters that it’s a complete delight to see her strung along by a con man and slowly – very, very slowly – falling in love. She and Tomlinson are really fun together and have a lot of genuine, believable chemistry. Other than the children, everybody else is really here in bit parts. Roddy McDowall has a small and insignificant role as the new village vicar. Jaffe and Forsyth had maybe a day on the set and that was that. Lennie Weinrib at least sounds like he got to have some fun with a couple of voiceovers for the cartoon animals.

Daniel enjoyed the movie, even if he did need an intermission, and while I think that the original, shorter theatrical cut must have been better, I enjoyed revisiting it. Now I want to read more about the restoration; it all seems really fascinating!